The night sky in the Northern summer always delivers something special when it comes to meteor showers. The Perseids, peaking in mid-August, have become one of the quintessential meteor showers. If you like such events, then you’re in luck because tonight you have not one but two showers peaking.
The first one is known as the Southern Delta Aquarids, a shower created by the remains of two comets, both of which passed close to the Sun a long time ago. These Sun-grazing comets left behind a band of dust and, when the Earth now passes through it, we see the meteors rain down. If you decide to stargaze, you can expect 15 to 20 meteors every hour.
The shower happens between mid-July and mid-August, peaking in late-July. They seem to radiate from the star Skat, also known as Delta Aquarii, the third-brightest star in the constellation of the water bearer. The evolution of this stream is strongly influenced by the planet Jupiter.
People in the Southern Hemisphere tend to get a better view of this shower as it’s higher in the sky. The best time to watch them is just before dawn. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, you should look towards the Southern horizon, where they will be fanning out in all directions.
The second shower is not as impressive as the first one. The Alpha Capricornids occur during a similar range in dates, from July 15 to August 10, but at a much lower rate, up to five per hour and rarely up to nine. The reason for the lower rate has to do with the position of the stream – the Earth is nowhere near its center.
The dust was left by comet 169P/NEAT when about half of its main body broke down a few thousand years ago. The stream has been evolving and moving ever since. Astronomers believe that the denser part of the dust stream will cross Earth’s orbit in about 200 to 400 years. At that point, Alpha Capricornids will be the more intense annual shower.
Tonight is also the new Moon, so without the reflected light of our natural satellite, it should be possible to spot even faint streaks across the sky. If the weather doesn’t help, don’t worry: you only have to wait a few weeks before the peak of the Perseids.